Kids today grew up with robots represented in half the TV shows, books, and movies they were exposed to. The older generation remembers a childhood of R2-D2 and C3P0 – and their parents, in turn, remember Robbie the Robot, Klaatu, and other spectacular pulp-era automatons. Robots immediately seize the attention and fire the imagination of children in a way no other technology can.
We recently attended the Southcoast MA Mini Makers Faire, held near our Massachusetts headquarters, and saw first-hand how blazingly excited kids got with exposure to robots. Fortunately, the beneficial influence of studying robotics goes way beyond maker’s fairs and trade shows. Robotics may, in fact, be the key to inspiring the next generation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) researchers, workers, and entrepreneurs.
There is a developing crisis in the STEM field. Employment analysts expect that by 2018 there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM jobs in the United States alone – and new STEM jobs are desperately needed. In fact, STEM fields will grow almost twice as fast as conventional areas of employment in this decade. Higher education is doing its part, but the fact is that inspiring young kids to go into STEM fields is the key to ensuring that the American workforce is up to the challenge of dealing with a high-tech economy.
And that may well be where the robots come in. Research shows that engagement with STEM concepts in early childhood and elementary school is practical – the kids can grasp the ideas – and effective. Specifically, out-of-school activities that engage the attention of young kids are very likely to create a lifelong pattern of seeking new knowledge and activity in those same fields. Kids who do something educational *as a hobby on their own time* are clearly hooked. Robotics, as it happens, is an area where even very young kids can do meaningful work, and they will fight to get at the materials and lessons they need to do it.
One area of strong fit between robots and early childhood education is that the elementary school period is a time when kids are having to learn reading and abstract symbol manipulation skills – critical skills to have, obviously – but what they really want to do is to be hands-on, kinetic, to draw and to shape and to create physical objects. Working with robots encourages both the abstract skills that they need (but often aren’t terribly excited by) and expressing those skills with hands-on tinkering and mechanical work. Most of the math and science education in the lower grades is entirely theoretical – robotics allows kids to put what they are learning to direct, immediate application.
Fortunately, the robotics industry is well aware of how critically important it is to get the youngest new learners excited about robots. There is a vast wealth of resources available to schools and educational programs for designing, creating, and deploying robotics projects. Many of these programs are cast as competitions, such as the Wonder League Robotics Competition, where kids from 6 to 12 can compete in a series of events by sending in videos of their robots successfully completing a series of challenges. The Wonder League events focus on programming. The Vex IQ Challenge, for elementary and middle schoolers, focuses more on robot operations, while the First Lego League Jr., for kids age 6 to 10, is naturally all about the building. There are many other programs and events in a similar vein.
Class time in schools is, of course, a natural incubation point for STEM education, and robotics works well as the framework in which to teach a wide variety of STEM concepts. Teachers report that teaching robotics requires kids to look at complex systems made up of multiple parts, to design and connect those systems themselves, which teaches real-world problem solving. The kids are, of course, highly motivated because they are learning by doing, rather than by listening to a teacher talk. And kids who learn best on their own can do so even outside of the school environment with consumer systems like Lego MindStorms, a fully-functioning robotic development kit using Lego blocks for implementation.
No single concept is going to be a magic bullet that solves our shortage of STEM workers. It will take a lot of different ideas, and a lot of different initiatives, to get to where we need to be. It’s clear, though, that robotics is an area with vast potential to inspire young minds to innovate and design the world of the future.